The Mets won their first division race in 18 years last season, and it seemed almost too easy. In taking the title the National League East, they finished 12 games ahead of Philadelphia, and 18 in front of the Braves, and clinched with 13 days still remaining in the season. In the process, they ended Atlanta’s record streak of division championships in resounding fashion.

While the Mets again lead the NL East this season, manager Willie Randolph isn’t counting on coasting to a first-place finish this time. The Mets hold a comfortable five-game lead over the Phillies, while Atlanta is six back, but Randolph hasn’t starting setting his playoff rotation yet. “I think it’s going to be a three-team race all the way until the end,” said Randolph, whose team has the best record in the NL at 71-53. “I don’t think the Phillies are going away and I don’t think the Braves are going way. And I certainly know we’re not going away. It’s going to be interesting.”

It would seem logical that Randolph’s preference would be for last year’s scenario, where he would have ample time to get his team ready for the postseason. Of course, all the time in the world couldn’t make up for injuries to starting pitchers Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez that eventually caught up to the Mets, as they were upset by St. Louis in a National League Championship Series that went the full seven games.

However, Randolph is invigorated by being in a race this time, instead of marking time while his team laps the field. “This is the way it’s supposed to be in baseball,” Randolph said. “I think everyone gets excited for a pennant race. Every day means so much. There’s an extra bounce in your step because you know every game is meaningful. You’re watching the scoreboard to see what the other teams are doing. It’s more of a challenge than what we had last season but I’m enjoying it. I think it’s going to be this way for another month or so, right up until the season ends.”

Randolph’s players seem to be enjoying the challenge as well. “It’s fun,” left-handed starting pitcher Oliver Perez said. “You know every game means something and that’s exciting. It’s easy to get fired up when you know so much is riding on each game. As a player, this is the position you hope to be in every year. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

It is particularly enjoyable if you are in first place. After being heavy favorites to win a weak NL when the season started, the Mets are atop the East because of a good blend of their expected solid hitting and unexpectedly good pitching, particularly with Martinez on the Disabled List all season as he recovers from shoulder surgery last October.

The Mets are sixth in the 16-team NL in runs scored with 600, and are averaging 4.8 a game. While Philadelphia, Colorado, and Atlanta are all scoring more runs per game, NL opponents fear the Mets’ lineup as much as any team’s. “They can hurt you in so many different ways and they can cause a game to get out of hand very quickly,” Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy said. “They have excellent speed at the top of the lineup then they have power and guys who produce runs in the middle of the order. They beat you with their legs and their bats. And they also have a really good blend of outstanding veteran players and outstanding young players in the lineup. It’s just a very good mix.”

The Mets’ young guns are leading the offense, as third baseman David Wright has a VORP of 53.9 while shortstop Jose Reyes is right behind at 48.6. Wright is hitting .310/.399/.520, while Reyes’ line is .302/.376/.448. Both are 24 and Mets’ cornerstones after signing long-term contracts last season that took effect this year. Wright’s deal is for six years and $55 million, and Reyes’ pact is for four years and $23.25 million.

“Jose and I were both so excited that the Mets offered us the long-term deals because we both love it here and want to spend our whole careers in New York,” Wright said. “A lot of people say New York is a tough town for young players, but we’ve never looked at it that way. It’s a great city with great fans who really appreciate it when you play the game the right way and succeed. There’s no better place to win than New York, and we both feel this franchise is in position to win for a long time. That’s why we wanted to stay and were happy that management wants us around for a long time.”

Wright and Reyes have carried the offense all season. Center fielder Carlos Beltran has been solid (31.6 VORP), and the club has also gotten strong contributions from second baseman Ruben Gotay (13.8), utility man Damion Easley (11.3), and backup catcher Ramon Castro (10.6) in limited roles. That hasn’t completely offset disappointing seasons from first baseman Carlos Delgado (12.1), right fielder Shawn Green (7.1), and catcher Paul Lo Duca (4.9). Easley suffered a severe ankle sprain over the weekend that will likely cost him the rest of the season, though General Manager Omar Minaya quickly traded two minor leaguers to Cincinnati for first baseman/outfielder Jeff Conine to fill the void on the bench. Minaya also acquired speedy second baseman Luis Castillo from Minnesota just before the July 31st non-waiver trading deadline in an effort to help spark the offense. In addition, Randolph has been giving more playing time to 22-year-old Lastings Milledge in right field at the expense of Green in recent weeks.

However, most everyone in the Mets’ clubhouse believes the key to the team’s ability to hold off Philadelphia and Atlanta in the division race and advance far in the postseason is outfielder Moises Alou‘s health. He has managed only 213 plate appearances this season because of quadriceps and shoulder injuries, but has generated a healthy 16.2 VORP in the limited playing time. “Mo is the key for us,” Delgado said. “He makes our lineup so much deeper when he is there. He gives us another big right-handed bat to go with David Wright and he’s a proven RBI man and a winner. If we can keep him in the lineup from here on in, you’re going to see a better offense.”

The Mets couldn’t ask for more from their pitching staff, which is second in the NL in runs allowed with a 4.3 per game average. Right-hander John Maine (4.5 SNLVAR) and Perez (3.0) were considered question marks coming into this season despite strong finishes last year. Together, they have erased those doubts by picking up the slack in the absence of Martinez, who is expected to rejoin the major league club in September. Lefty Tom Glavine (4.6) remains ageless at 41, as does the right-hander Hernandez (4.5), whose age is estimated at anywhere from 37 to 41.

Closer Billy Wagner is having yet another fantastic season with a 4.485 WXRL to lead the bullpen. Pedro Feliciano (1.741) has been quietly effective for a second straight year as a situational lefty reliever, and Jorge Sosa (1.340) has helped shore up a shaky right-handed set-up crew since being moved from the rotation in late July, helping make up for poor years by Aaron Heilman (0.182) and Guillermo Mota (minus-0.163).

While the Mets have Wright and Reyes for the future, the championship clock is ticking for a franchise in which Glavine and Hernandez are just two of a large number of aging veterans–Alou (41 years old), Conine (41), occasionally present backup catchers Sandy Alomar Jr. (41) and Mike DiFelice (38), Easley (37), long reliever Aaron Sele (37), injured starting second baseman Jose Valentin (37), Wagner (36), Delgado (35), Martinez (35), and Green (34) are all at or near the ends of their careers.

Add that to the fact the Mets were denied a berth in the World Series after losing Game Seven of last year’s NLCS at home, and there is plenty of motivation to get to the Fall Classic this year. “Anytime you get close to achieving a goal and don’t reach it, there’s going to be extra motivation to try to achieve it the next time,” Randolph said. “We have a lot of veterans who know what it takes to win and are really hungry to get back to the postseason and try to take things even further this time.”